GILBERT, W.Va. — James “Buck” Harless, who grew the Gilbert Lumber Company into a multimillion-dollar conglomerate and became a philanthropic force in West Virginia, died at his home Wednesday night. He was 94.

Family members said Harless was in good spirits, but his health began to fail suddenly Christmas night.

“He would say things were just wearing out,” according to West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney.

Harless graduated from Gilbert High School and son went to work as a coal miner. He gave up the job in 1947 and became manager and part owner of a sawmill in Gilbert.

The Harless-run lumber company eventually became International Industries and included a wide range of natural resources assets, but was primarily based on timber and coal. The business also included hotels, real estate, and manufacturing.

Harless became a philanthropist to many causes. He provided funding for a large number of charities in Mingo County and surrounding communities through the years.

“I would shudder to think at the amount of money he gave to charity that he never took credit for,” said Speedy Bevins, general manager of WVOW Radio in Logan. “A lot of his donations he would give in the honor of or memory of, but I’m sure he gave away millions and never said anything about it.”

Harless was credited with creating hundreds of jobs in the region with his various companies.  He was also a substantial contributor to West Virginia University and Marshall University.

“He didn’t want any attention about that,” Raney said. “He was always there for churches and choirs and universities.  Goodness knows how many children he educated in West Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Alabama.”

At WVU, Harless served on the Board of Governors and made donations creating professorships and scholarships in everything from athletics to health sciences. He was honored by the university as “Most Loyal Mountaineer” and “Order of the Vandalia.” He was awarded a number of honorary doctorate degrees from various institutions including WVU.

Although he was an iconic figure in southern West Virginia, most say he was best known for his unassuming nature about his wealth.

“He lived in Gilbert in a very simple house across the Guyandotte,” Bevins said. “There used to be a restaurant in Gilbert called Billy Ann’s and he went there for lunch every day.  He was so approachable. If you met him and didn’t know who he was an struck up a conversation and then later learned that guy is a billionaire, you’d be dumb struck.”

Among the many causes he championed was healthcare for his neighbors. Harless indicated to WVU physician Jim Brick the university needed a clinic in southern West Virginia. Brick said Harless offered up a corner of the community center he built to house the clinic and it was packed with patients from the very first visit. Today, the clinic is a full-blown medical facility thanks to Harless.

“We have a real clinic with a laboratory, primary care, and specialists who come from not only WVU but also from Marshall,” Brick said. “This is a guy who could have lived anywhere he wanted in the world and he chose to live down there on the Guyandotte River in Gilbert, W.Va.”

Harless’ wealth didn’t come easy. He often talked about the struggles of just meeting payroll in the early days. But he stuck with his work and made his companies grow.

“He always said he didn’t have a lot of good sense, but he had the good sense to surround himself with good people who knew how to do things,” Raney remarked.

Raney said Harless had a different approach to his companies and how they conducted business.

“He was always on the leading edge and always willing to take those extra steps to do things just a little bit different and do a little bit more than was required to set the pace,” Raney explained. “Hopefully some of the lessons he taught us will stick.”

Harless was also politically active. He was involved in many state and local political races and often financially backed candidates. The most high profile political role he played came with his backing financially of George W. Bush. It was Harless’ early support for the then-Texas governor which was credited with helping Bush carry West Virginia during his first campaign for the presidency.

Two years ago Harless chronicled his remarkable legacy in an auto-biography, “A Most Fortunate Life.”

 

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Comments

  • Sjon Harless

    Buck(Pa), Was a great man and he truly loved and worried about the state of West Virginia He will be greatly missed but not forgotten!

  • Teresa T.

    I like most people of the good town of Gilbert, and surrounding areas, reaching to many states, and other countries, are better people for having known "Mr. Harless". My first encounter as a youth, was when Mr. Harless sponsored me when I was in Miss WV Teen Pageant. He would always give me tickets to the WVU games so I could go spend time with my daughter while she was in school there. In my work with March of Dimes and Relay for Life Cancer Organization, I could always depend on Mr. Harless generous donations to these well deserved organizations. Mr. "Buck" Harless came by his name honestly...because he was always passing "bucks" to anyone that needed his help...however, let his legacy be one we can all live by, and that is to work hard for a living, and treating people along the way, as we would like to be treated. thank you Mr. Harless it is a pleasure and honor to say you were from our awesome town of Gilbert. Now you can rest with our Savior!!!

  • david

    Grateful for Buck Harless and other generous West Virginians like him!

  • Duke Jordan

    Great man. Did a lot of things behind the scenes most didn't know about. True West Virginian.

  • D.P.

    I was very fortunate to have met this man years ago, and I was really impressed with his friendliness and genuine sincerity. When my friend told me he was a multimillionaire, I was blown away! RIP Mr. Harless!

  • knows

    never heard of him up here in northern part of state but sounds like he did alot of good things

  • Jean Potter

    We will certainly miss you, Buck. You were an amazing man and Tom, Christopher, Alexandria and Victoria treasured your friendship. We will always remember your wonderful comments at the triplets christening. You are in Heaven and for that we have some comfort. Our deepest sympathies to Hallie, your family and certainly your friends. Jean Potter

  • Curly Joe

    I met Mr. Harless in 1988 at Billie Ann's restaurant in Gilbert. I felt like I was lucky enough to to be meeting a legend. In his warm manner, he seemed like he was saying hello to an old friend. May this good man rest in peace and his influence live on forever.

  • John Sutherland

    Buck was truly a gentleman in every sense of the word. He was a blessing to so many people he touched and that includes our student-athletes at Marshall University. His generosity provided academic support for all of our 350 student-athletes through the creation of the Buck Harless Academic Center, support that we were not able to provide apart from the kind gift of Buck and Hallie. Marshall University and the whole state of West Virginia has lost a true friend.

  • cutty77

    Buck Harless a Treasure of a Man. I don't care who he backed in Elections.He always backed all people in all walks of Life. He supported Marshall and WVU the same. If all of us could be 10 percent of The Man Buck Harless was. We would all have a much better life. Rest in Peace Buck.

  • James Lane

    Buck Harless talked to every person the same way. He didn't care or notice if they were rich or poor, uneducated or a PHD. He gave everyone the same respect regardless of social status or income. He was also a perfect example of how capitalism and wealth are supposed to work as opposed to how it is with most men of wealth and means these days. He was a giant and he was good man.

  • Agnes Crabapple

    I was all in on this story until I read> "Harless was also politically active."

    I was revived after reading this> "The most high profile political role he played came with his backing financially of George W. Bush."

    A conservative? Must've been a great man.

    • Lisa

      Agnes, you are an idiot. My grandfather grew up with Buck, and Buck kept him and my father - and hundreds of others in southern West Virginia working throughout their careers. He paid for scholarships, he funded school improvements, he funded community centers, he truly cared about the people of the region. I grew up knowing that if I needed him, he would be there for me as well. All of us did. While we may have had differing political views, he would never have allowed that to be a determining factor in whether he helped someone in need. Get a clue - he was very much loved by those who knew him, either personally or through his generous spirit.

    • Calvin

      What a classless thing to say Agnes. I knew Mr Harless and he was without a doubt one of the most generous men to ever call West Virginia home. Both of my grandfathers worked underground with him at Red Jacket Coal Co and he made his fortunes from absolute zero and gave back so much of himself and his money to help others! I'd like to hear what you've done for others in your lifetime! It's natural for a business man or woman to support a conservative that will help them and their businesses to employ people!

    • Neil

      Agnes, indeed he was a great man. Adopted in youth and started in business without a change of clothes. Self made? No, he always gave the credit to the people around him.

      Great may be inappropriate when thinking of what he did while on this earth.

      • ritafay

        With all due respect,'Buck' would've said he was not self made. The people around him helped him be the great man he was...He truly will be missed.

    • Jason

      What's wrong Agnes? Are you afraid to work for what you want? No matter how many people in our area call a trip to the post office once a month: 'going to work' - it's really not.

    • Wirerowe

      Inappropriate and disgusting comment Agnes

    • Joe

      Totally out of line comment Agnes.

  • Joe

    Mr. Harless was a true West Virginian, who gave as much as he recieved from the state that he loved. I had the pleasure of meeting with him some 12 years ago. He treated with me tremendous respect and I'll never forget that meeting. He will truly be missed. I doubt there will ever be another like him in WV. It is a sad, sad day to be a Mountaineer.